Colleen McCullough

On, Off

The first book in the Carmine Delmonico series, 2006

For Helen Sanders Brittain

with fond memories of the old days,

and much love.

Part One

October & November 1965

Chapter 1

Wednesday, October 6th, 1965

Jimmy woke up gradually, conscious at first of only one thing: the perishing cold. His teeth were chattering, his flesh ached, his fingers and toes were numb. And why couldn’t he see? Why couldn’t he see? All around him was pitch darkness, a blackness so dense he had never known anything like it. As he grew wider awake he realized too that he was imprisoned in something close, smelly, alien. Wrapped up! Panic set in and he began to scream, to claw frantically at whatever was confining him. It ripped and tore, but when the stygian coldness persisted after he managed to free himself, his terror drove him mad. There were other things all around him, the same smelly kind of restraints, but no matter how he shrieked, ripped, tore, he couldn’t find a way out, couldn’t see a particle of light or feel a puff of warmth. So he shrieked, ripped, tore, his heart roaring in his ears and the only noises his own.

Otis Green and Cecil Potter came into work together, having hooked up on Eleventh Street with a broad grin for each other. Dead on 7 A.M., but wasn’t it great not to have to punch a time clock? Their place of work was civilized, man, no arguments there. They put their lunch pails in the small stainless steel cupboard they had reserved for their own use – no need for locks, there were no thieves here. Then they started the business of their day.

Cecil could hear his babies calling for him; he went straight to their door and opened it, speaking to them in a tender voice.

“Hi, guys! How ya doin’ huh? Everybody sleep well?”

The door was still hissing shut behind Cecil when Otis saw to the least palatable job of his day, emptying the refrigerator. His wheeled plastic bin smelled clean and fresh; he put a new liner in it and pushed it over to the refrigerator door, a heavy steel one with a snap-lock handle. What happened next was a blur: something streaking past him as he opened the door, screaming like a banshee.

“Cecil, get out here!” he yelled. “Jimmy’s still alive, we gotta catch him!”

The big monkey was in a state of gibbering frenzy, but after Cecil talked to him a little while and then held out his arms, Jimmy bolted into them, shivering, his shrieks dying to whimpers.

“Jesus, Otis,” Cecil said, cradling the beast like a father his child, “how did Dr. Chandra miss that? The poor little guy’s been locked in the fridge all night. There there, Jimmy, there there! Daddy’s here, little man, you’re okay now!”

Both men were shocked and Otis’s heart had a jelly roll beat to it, but no real harm was done. Dr. Chandra would be pleased as punch that Jimmy hadn’t died after all, thought Otis, returning to the refrigerator. Jimmy was worth a hundred big ones.

Even a cleanliness fanatic like Otis couldn’t banish the smell of death from the refrigerator, scrub it with disinfectant and deodorant though he did. The stench, not of decay but of something subtler, surrounded Otis as he flipped the light switch to reveal the chamber’s stainless steel interior. Oh, man, Jimmy had made a regular mess of it! Torn paper bags were strewn everywhere, headless rat carcasses, stiff white hair, obscenely naked tails. And, behind the dozen rat bags, a couple of much bigger bags, torn up too. Sighing, Otis went to fetch more bags from a cupboard and began to make order out of Jimmy’s chaos. The dead rats properly bagged again, he reached into the chilly chamber and pulled the first of the two big bags forward. It had been rent from top to bottom, most of its contents on full display.

Otis opened his mouth and screamed as shrilly as Jimmy, was still screaming when Cecil erupted out of the monkey room. Then, not seeming to notice Cecil, he turned and ran out of animal care, down the halls, into the foyer, out the entrance, legs opening and closing in a punishing run down Eleventh Street to his home on the second floor of a shabby three-family house.

Celeste Green was having coffee with her nephew when Otis burst into the kitchen; they leaped to their feet, Wesley’s passionate diatribe about Whitey’s crimes forgotten. Celeste went for the smelling salts while Wesley put Otis on a chair. Back with the bottle, she pushed Wesley roughly out of her way.

“You know your trouble, Wes? You always in the way! You didn’t get in Otis’s way all the time, he wouldn’t call you a good for nothin’ kid! Otis! Otis, honey, wake up!”

Otis’s skin had faded from a warm deep brown to a pasty grey that didn’t improve when the ammoniac vapors were jammed under his nose, but he came around, jerked his head away.

“What is it? What’s the matter?” Wesley was asking.

“A piece of woman,” Otis whispered.

“A what?” sharply from Celeste.

“A piece of woman. In the fridge at work with the dead rats. A pussy and a belly.” He began to shake.

Wesley asked the only question that mattered to him. “Was she a white woman or a black woman?”

“Don’t bother him with that, Wes!” Celeste cried.

“Not black,” Otis said, hands going to his chest. “But not white neither. Colored,” he added, slipped forward off the chair and fell to the floor.

“Call an ambulance! Go on, Wes, call an ambulance!”

Which came very quickly, due to two fortunate facts: one, that the Holloman Hospital was just around the corner, and the other, that business was slack this hour of morning. Still very much alive, Otis Green was put into the ambulance with his wife crouched beside him; the apartment was left to Wesley le Clerc.

He didn’t linger there, not with news like this. Mohammed el Nesr lived at 18 Fifteenth Street, and he had to be told. A piece of woman! Not black, but not white either. Colored. That meant black to Wesley, as it did to all the members of Mohammed’s Black Brigade. Time that Whitey was called to account for two hundred years and more of oppression, of treating black people as second-rate citizens, even as beasts without immortal souls.

When he’d gotten out of prison in Louisiana he’d decided to come north to Tante Celeste in Connecticut. He yearned to make a reputation as a black man who mattered, and that was easier to do in a part of the nation less prone than Louisiana to throw blacks in jail if they looked sideways. Connecticut was where Mohammed el Nesr and his Black Brigade hung out. Mohammed was educated, had a doctorate in law – he knew his rights! But for reasons that Wesley saw every day when he looked in a mirror, Mohammed el Nesr had dismissed Wesley as worthless. A plantation black, a nobody nothing. Which hadn’t dampened Wesley’s ardor; he intended to

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